Archive for October 22, 2008

Network Reception

Posted in Biographical with tags on October 22, 2008 by telescoper

Tonight the Park Plaza Hotel in Cardiff played host to a wine-and-canapes reception on behalf of the Wales and West region of the RSA, an organization of which I am a Fellow, after being elected about two years ago.

The RSA is actually called the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce although this is frequently shortened to the Royal Society of Arts, a name that doesn’t really convey its true interdisciplinary nature. It’s London base is a splendid Georgian building in John Adam Street, just off the Strand and not far from Charing Cross, where it has been situated since 1774. Fellows have free use of this building, including its library and wi-fi connections, which I find very handy when visiting London. They do nice lunches too.

THe RSA is a venerable institution, formed in 1754, but it has evolved considerably over the years. Early on it attempted to stimulate progress by laying down challenges and offering rewards (“premiums”) for their successful completion. Probably the most famous of these was the challenge to transport live breadfruit to the West Indies taken up by Captain William Bligh with his ship the Bounty. His first attempt ended in the famous mutiny, but he survived and, showing immense skill, managed to navigate an open boat across the ocean to safety. When he got back to England he repeated the attempt, this time successfully and he duly collected the reward (or premium).

The RSA also organized Britain’s first public exhibition of contemporary art and it was such a hit that two of its members – Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds – formed a spin-off organization in 1768 called the Royal Academy of Arts, which is now based in Burlington House Piccadilly, on the same site as the Royal Astronomical Society.

Originally the Society had a manifesto deriving from the high ideals of the 18th Century Enlightenment, chiefly to harness the energy and creativity of high achievers to improve society in general. Nowadays its aims have been altered to reflect the changes in society, but it is still involved in many and various campaigns and projects, chiefly on educational and environmental issues, and even runs its own academy, a type of school (concocted by New Labour )that is state-funded, but not controlled by a local education authority. The RSA also runs public lectures and activities from its London base as well as various regional campaigns.

Tonight’s reception was basically just to allow new Fellows to meet and to receive a few words of wisdom from the thrusting, dynamic Chief Executive Matthew Taylor. I’m afraid that part didn’t go too well. Mr Taylor went on at length about the importance of its academy to future RSA strategy without apparently realising that here in Wales there aren’t any academies at all. New Labour may have tinkered with English education, but devolution has protected the Welsh from a lot of the associated nonsense. I’m a relative newcomer to the Society, but I already have a feeling that it is a bit too London-centric for its own good (as, sadly, many things are in Britain).

Apparently when Matthew Taylor first took up his position as Chief Executive he decided to ditch the title Fellow on the grounds that it was sexist. He suggested changing the title to Member, until his staff pointed out that people probably wouldn’t want to have the letters MRSA after their name. I quite like having FRSA after mine, because I’m already FRAS. Maybe I’ll try to collect the whole set of permutations.

Anyway, after the speeches we got down to “networking”, i.e. drinking. I talked to various interesting people: a retired schoolteacher, a lady who works in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, and a strange man with long hair and white shoes, who I was told used to be a City Councillor in Cardiff and who was kicked out after some scandal. I thought he would probably be quite interesting to talk to, but he wasn’t very forthcoming. I think he might have thought I was a reporter, judging by the rate I was knocking back the wine.

Overall, it was quite an enjoyable evening. The wine was free and the nibbles were delicious, especially the little bread things with olive pate on them.